Monthly Archives: July 2009

Tomorrow is my birthday — guess my age

My age as of tomorrow is the answer to this puzzle: How many squares of any size are there in the following figure? I’ve added rulers with hash marks on the top and left to make it clear how far apart the lines are.

How many squares of any size?

How many squares of any size?


The Riddler stole my daughter’s bike


There’s no other explanation for it — my daughter’s beach cruiser was stolen yesterday, and the Riddler was involved.

Background: We live in Marina Del Rey, in a 900 unit apartment complex, all the way in back, far away from the main street. We lock our bikes in front of our car, in a parking structure that is halfway underground but open so you see (and be seen) in two directions. To secure the bikes I bought heavy (3/8″) cables and locks. We store three bikes there: two beach cruisers we bought two years ago for my daughter and her friend for about $100 each, and my recumbent, which cost substantially more than that. All the bikes are locked with the same single cable. My recumbent is the outermost bike, since I’ve been riding it a lot recently. The beach cruisers are dusty and rusty from two years of mostly sitting in the sea air. and their tires are low on air.

The scene of the crime: Yesterday afternoon we went out to the car and immediately saw that something was wrong: my recumbent was in the parking space next to ours, on its side, unlocked. Then we saw that our daughter’s cruiser had been stolen. The other cruiser, identical but for color, was still there, and my recumbent (albeit tossed to the side). The cable was cut clean through, seemingly in one cut. I’m not sure how big a set of cable cutters that would take, but I was surprised.

That's disappointing.

That's disappointing.

Given that the cruiser cost $100 and was beat up and rusty, we wondered why anyone would take it. We figured that since bike theft is a low priority for the police and we know that there are no cameras in our parking garage, we would just have to live with the loss.

Then I noticed the set of perfect prints on the hood of our car. The right hand, all five fingers. They couldn’t have been any clearer if there had been a mug shot beside them. So we called the sheriffs. They told us there had been a string of bike thefts that day, so it would take some time for them to come out.

When the sheriff arrived, she said that yes, there had been several bikes stolen that day. She said that thieves will often ride out solo on a junker bike, find a bike they like, and leave the junker behind, riding away on the stolen bike. She wasn’t sure whether the fingerprint person would be available on a Sunday.

It starts to get weird: When we started giving her a description of the bike — beach cruiser, red, rusty handlebars, bike bell — she recognized the bike. It had been left at the scene of another bike theft two blocks away. She drove over there and came out with our daughter’s bike.

Riddle me this: What is the logic to this? The thief arrived at our complex — somehow. Then he stole our daughter’s bike, rode it two whole blocks, dumped it there stealing another, more expensive bike. I can think of no way this works out better than just starting with the other bike. He (they caught him on video at the other place) could have walked from our apartment to the other place in less than ten minutes. The only explanation: the Riddler is involved, and he’s trying to confuse us.

On the plus side: It now appears that my recumbent is theft-proof. This is the second time in nine days that a bike thief has looked at my bike and said, “no thanks.” Gotta be happy about that.


84 Miles of bad road

Yesterday’s ride was about 84 miles, and some of them went well. Here’s an image of the map, linked to the real thing:


D (with A underneath it) is the start/end point. B is as far as I got. C is where, on the way back, I bonked big time. I was at a grocery store wondering what I could possibly eat that would let me keep biking. I drank about a quart of milk and it seemed to help. By the time I hit Santa Monica I was feeling alright again.

Before this ride I made a small adjustment to my bike: I reclined the seat about 5-10 degrees. The change to the riding configuration wasn’t that noticeable, but it had a large impact on the way the bike handled bumps in the road. The bike isn’t suspended front or rear — here’s a picture of a bike like mine:


Every bump was like a punch straight to my back. I’m going to have to see if I can put a rubber shim in between the back support and the seat.

Will the real Harry Potter please stand up?

The following is a critique of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and a proposed replacement for books 6 and 7, believe it or not, from the world of fan fiction. Edit: Note, the proposed replacements are available for free, in HTML and PDF.

Spoiler Warning: I won’t go out of my way to reveal things, but I’m not avoiding it either.

There is a long-running game show called To Tell the Truth, where a panel of celebrities receives a brief description of a notable but obscure person, and then questions three people to determine which them is the person in question, and which are impostors. At the end of the show the host would say, “Will the real [whoever it is] please stand up?” Unfortunately, the Harry Potter in J.K. Rowlings’s books should remain seated.

Consider the setup: Harry Potter is a wizard who, as an infant, withstood the universally-fatal killing curse Avada Kedavra (because his mother’s love protected him). He is prophesied to defeat Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard in modern times, perhaps in history. He has numerous powerful friends, and every opportunity to develop into a world-class wizard who actually has a shot at fulfilling the prophecy.

Harry Potter and the False Identity

Now consider the impostor presented in the books and movies: as a sixth and even seventh year, he is seemingly still dependent on Expelliarmus and other second and third year spells when confronting death eaters. It’s true the majority of his Defense Against the Dark Arts instructors have been useless, but that’s another strike against him/Rowling: from a narrative standpoint, Rowling should have come up with some way for him to learn.

Harry compares poorly to his father. James Potter and his friends created the Marauder’s Map. Where is Harry’s (or Hermione’s) similar achievement?

Harry compares even more poorly to Snape. As a sixth and seventh year, Snape (the Half-Blood Prince) improved on his Potions textbook and invented spells. Again, Harry has no equivalent achievement.

Harry compares least favorably to Dumbledore and Voldemort. In the battle at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Vodemort and Dumbledore show what truly capable wizards can do, and it is laughably beyond what Harry and his comrades have mastered. The books make no mention of a Wizard’s College beyond Hogwarts, but there must be one because the spells Dumbledore and Voldemort do, they obviously aren’t teaching at Hogwarts.

You Call This a Story?

There are other glaring weaknesses to the books besides Harry’s (and his friends’) lack of development after about the third year. The introduction in book 6 of the concept of Horcruxes is late in the narrative, especially given that one of them (Tom Riddle’s diary) is introduced but not identified in book 2. With the large number of Horcruxes to be retrieved, book 7 was almost guaranteed to feel rushed as the characters hurry to clean up Rowling’s mess.

At the same time that it feels rushed, book 7 feels slow. The interminable camping trip that fills the middle third of the book is awkward and dull.

The death and resurrection plot point is too obviously a Christian metaphor.

The battle between McGonagall and Snape again demonstrates stunning difference between Harry (or any of his friends) and a competent wizard.

The justification for Snape’s change of heart is unsupported, out of left field, and ultimately doesn’t fit with his previous treatment of Harry. Snape dislikes Harry because of his similarity to his father, James Potter, who mistreated Snape while they were students at Hogwarts, but wouldn’t Snape also like Harry because of his similarity to his mother, whom Snape loved? There is no logic to it, and it rings false.

The battle of Hogwarts is ridiculous — if Death Eaters were that easy to kill, why were they ever a threat to begin with? Later, Molly Weasley’s battle with Bellatrix Lestrange makes this point again. Unless Mrs. Weasley’s favorite hobby is dueling, why is she any sort of match for a seasoned Death Eater. Isn’t the whole point of dark magic that it’s more powerful than normal magic (or why use it?) and therefore the good and noble protagonists must be that much better than their evil antagonists to overcome them?

Finally Harry’s ultimate victory is simple deus ex machina. The less said about it the better

The Real Harry Potter

Now for the risky  part: the proposed replacement. They are called Harry Potter and the Veil of Mystery, and Harry Potter and the Ring of Reduction. The author goes by the name Semprini. I’m not sure where the canonical version resides, but you can find the books:

These books surpass Rowling’s unfortunate efforts in nearly every way, in some ways by a great margin. In non-spoiler terms:

  • The explanation for Harry’s survival as an infant is slightly different, but consistent, and serves as the foundation for the rest of the books.
  • Harry’s power (and his friends’) is shown to grown believably to a level where he is a credible threat to Voldemort.
  • The prophecy, in particular the phrase, “…he will have power that the Dark Lord knows not…” is very nicely fulfilled.
  • Hermione especially demonstrates more and more advanced spells as the books progress.
  • The action is better.
  • The books are more fun.
  • The Death Eaters are a more capable threat.
  • The explanation for Snape’s treatment of Harry makes much more sense, and serves as a major plot element through HPatRoR.
  • Story elements from several of Rowling’s previous books are dealt with more satisfactorily in these books than in Rowling’s own 6th and 7th books.
  • The writing is very serviceable. The pacing is good, the story is convincing, there are too many exciting moments to count.
  • The author’s friends, serving as editors, did a good job of minimizing any glaring grammatical issues. My only significant complaint is the repeated use of subjective pronouns where objectives should have been: “I know you weren’t training Neville and I with the  idea that you’d be using us this soon.” A few awkward phrases are used too often. A minor complaint is that Hagrid’s accent seems too thick.

That said, the books aren’t perfect. They’re extremely long, albeit well paced and engaging. They tend to be dialog-heavy. Some of the plot elements are heavy-handed or preachy. But the overall result is far superior to Rowling’s books, and it’s a shame that the movies won’t be based on these books instead.


Finally, a caveat. The books propose a slightly different explanation for how Harry survived the killing curse as an infant: his mother’s love invoked an alternate form of magic, based on love itself. Once Harry realizes this and begins to use the “power of love” his magical abilities begin to grow dramatically. This serves as the foundation for both books, and it can be a bit off-putting, but it’s used consistently: the friends have to overcome their shyness/reservations/discomfort to develop an enhanced sense of closeness and warmth to use the new magic (Ron has the hardest time of it), and the friends’ budding romances are portrayed in some detail.

The first time I read the books, I had to make a conscious decision that I was going to accept the “power of love” element, but the second time it came easily.

The impact of the books on me was notable: as the characters (Harry in particular) focused on their sense of closeness to each other, I found myself feeling closer to my friends and loved ones. It’s not often that a book has that kind of impact.

My first century in nearly a quarter century

The last time I rode a century was the last day of the last time I rode the coast. Today I rode from Marina Del Rey out to Camarillo and back, and learned a few things:

  • A century (100 miles) hurts more than it did twenty years ago.
  • But I can still do one.
  • And I don’t think it hurt any more than the 72 miles I did two weeks ago.
  • My knees hurt, though, so I’m definitely going to need to do something about that. The last time I rode the coast I had knee problems as well, but it didn’t set in until after several days. We’ll see if a knee brace fixes it the way it did the last time.
  • I’m still not fully comfortable on the recumbent. I took a tumble while starting up once today.
  • I am the slowest person to ride the distances I do. Everyone passes me, but I get there anyway so I’m happy. Plus, I assume that many of them aren’t riding as far as I am. 🙂
  • A recumbent (mine at least) is no faster than regular bikes going downhill or on the level — I say this because I don’t coast downhill any faster than other bikes, so obviously I’m not more aerodynamic.
  • A recumbent (mine at least) really sucks going uphill.
  • That said, my recumbent is definitely more comfortable than a regular bike. The only soreness I’m feeling now is in my legs, my knees (expected), and the soles of my feet (expected). On a regular bike I would also have a sore neck, sore shoulders, sore crotch, and sore hands.
  • I need to find a better way through Venice than the bicycle path. Despite the fact that it’s clearly marked for bikes only, crowds walk on it, skateboard on it, rollerblade on it, you name it on it. It’s frustrating because if bikes ride on the walkway, they get a ticket (Aja did). So where are the police handing out tickets to pedestrians at least? Sooner or later I’m going to run into someone if I keep riding that thing.
  • Heading south through Malibu is faster by bike than by car at 5pm on a Saturday. I passed hundreds of cars on my way home. One jerk honked his horn behind me when there was no space in the bike path to the right because of parked cars and there was about fifty feet of empty space in front of me. As soon as there was room I moved over, he zoomed past making gestures at me. A minute later he was stopped in traffic as I rode past. I feel no shame that I waved good-bye as I left him behind.
  • I’m getting stronger: for anyone who doesn’t know, a modern bike generally has three chainrings (the ones in front), and this time I didn’t have to use the smallest (easiest) chainring while hitting the hills in Malibu. The last time I did.
  • You can get sunburn on your face even if your back is to the sun, even if you have a hat on. <sigh> I went to the trouble of putting a brim on my helmet. It looks really silly, but I respect the sun, and I don’t want to get burned. My face was never in direct sunlight, and in fact my back was to the sun the whole way to Camarillo, but I sunburned my face anyway. I had Bullfrog sunblock with me, so I was able to stop the burn, but I can tell it’s going to be painful anyway.
  • Never leave your bike outside a gas station unlocked, even if the gas station is busy.

Regarding that last one, I was at a gas station in Malibu on my way home, and as usual I tossed a lightweight combo lock on my bike. It wasn’t attached to anything, but at least no one could ride it away — not that that’s all that likely anyway given that it’s a recumbent and intimidating looking. Actually not just intimidating looking, but intimidating-riding as well. I think most people would just fall over if they tried to steal my bike 🙂

Unfortunately for him, he had a regular bike, and while he was in the gas station someone either rode it away or tossed it in a truck. He even had his cell phone on the bike. I offered him mine but he said he had no one to call. I offered to come back in an hour to pick him up after I got home, but he thanked me and walked away. Not sure what he was planning to do. He said he lived in the valley so he certainly wasn’t going to walk home, especially since he was wearing standard road cycling shoes, which are not make for walking: imagine high heels, but with no heels.

Anyway, I’m worn out but it was a lot of fun. Here’s an image of a map, linked to the real thing:


Senket — Puzzle of the Week 7 — Discussion

Weekly Puzzle 7 is particularly challenging, hence the use of “discussion” rather than “solution.” Someday someone may be skilled enough at Senket to do a definitive analysis of a puzzle like this, but that person isn’t likely to be me 😉


Starting at 7-3 doesn’t work out very well for Blue. Red 2 closes him in immediately, and by Blue 7 the matter is settled. Red has given up 13 squares of territory (and Blue has take 2), but Red has a strong position to the left to gain 15 or more.

Blue 1 shown here doesn't accomplish much.

Blue 1 shown here doesn't accomplish much.


There are a number of ways for Blue at 6-2 to play out. Here are a few:

If Red 2 and 4 cut off the inside of the territory, Blue 3 and 5 run to the outside, and Red can only barely keep Blue inside. When Red 10 seals off the top, Blue 11 is necessary to protect the corner. Red 12 takes the sure 3 squares and takes 3 away from Blue, then Blue 13 takes 3 squares.

In the end, Blue has 17 units of territory and Red has only 15, but Red has tremendous outside influence. So from a points standpoint Blue is better, but Red is likely well ahead in the long run.

Blue gains territory, but Red has huge influence outside.

Blue gains territory, but Red has huge influence outside.

Blue at 6-2 could also end up as shown below, if Red chooses to block off the outside immediately. Toward the end, Blue 9 is intended to stop Red from easily taking another 8 or more squares of territory along the left wall. Instead, Red 10 takes 8 squares inside. Blue could have played 9 at 8-3, preventing Red’s inside aspirations, but then Red 10 at 3-6 would take 8 or more squares of territory, and again Blue has to deal with Red’s enormous outside influence.

6-2 could also end up like this.

6-2 could also end up like this.


Blue at 4-3 ends up much the way 6-2 did:

Not much advantage here.

Not much advantage here.

If Red blocks the outside immediately:

Blue is blocked in again.

Blue is blocked in again.


If Blue attempts to make reaching the outside a possibility with 1-5, Red is still able to contain him, leaving Red strong to the outside and Blue with very little.

Red locks Blue away again.

Red locks Blue away again.


As far as I’ve analyzed it, there is no spot that simultaneously allows Blue to mess up Red’s territory and escape to the outside himself. The basic decision comes down to inside vs. outside. I’d tend to take outside influence over minimal inside territory.

There’s something funny about this joke…

The last pun on this page seems wrong to me. Here’s how I think it should be worded:

A person sent ten different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

Here’s the original wording:

And finally, there was the person who sent twenty different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least ten of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

Am I wrong? The pun in the original doesn’t make sense.